Stuck in a tent for 3 days at 19,300 ft. on Cerro Aconcagua in 1999, Matt Richardson and I started talking about climbing Mt. McKinley (hereafter in this write-up referred to with great respect as Denali or "the Great One"). After several years of planning our thoughts and plans materialized. The addition of Maria Roa and Joe White made our team complete.
The summer of 2001 was a banner year for climbers attempting Denali. It happened to be one of the best weather years in recent history. Our team reaped the benefits of the good fortune. National Park Service (NPS) statistics record that 1305 climbers attempted the climb with a 65% success rate. This was nearly a record. Success rates usually average between 30 to 45%. Another record was equaled this year in that there had been no fatalities for 3 years in a row. However, these numbers do not reflect the casualties due to frostbite, falls, or altitude related injuries.
Most arrangements for services or shuttles we made over the internet. We also referred to guide books by RJ Secor and Colby Coombs for the West Buttress route. These books can give details of much of the climb or needed gear.
Our team took a redeye flight to Anchorage where we met our prearranged shuttle, Denali Overland Transport. They were willing to pick us up at the airport at 2:30 am. Riding with us were two Russian climbers who were at the airport when we arrived. Sitting in the front of the van was a climber with frost bitten fingertips. He had been at the hospital in Anchorage for treatment and was now returning to Talkeetna to join the other members of his group when they came down the mountain.
Needless to say, meeting a climbing casualty face to face at the airport was a rather sobering way to start the trip-our first surprise.
Just short of 3 hours later we arrived in Talkeetna. From this quaint little town, climbers assemble to fly in small single engine planes equipped with skis and land on a finger of the Kahiltna Glacier 15 miles below the summit of Denali. Of course pilots only fly if the weather on the mountain is good, so often times climbers are stranded for days in Talkeetna. We had arranged to fly up to the mountain with Doug Geeting Aviation. It was our impression that Geeting's service had a bunkhouse of sorts near the airport where we could get some sleep or even stay if the weather was bad. This was incorrect. Doug Geeting has no bunkhouse-our second surprise. There were several sleeping climbers crammed into the small-carpeted space in his business office. This was the "bunkhouse". Several of the other flight services have a decent bunkhouse that accommodates waiting climbers due to bad weather. The K-2 facility looked impressive.
After sleeping a couple of hours in the van, we opened the Roadhouse restaurant at 6:30 am for a great breakfast. The NPS ranger station is just down the road and opened at 8:00 am. We greeted the ranger as she put the key in the door. In order to obtain a climbing permit, one must register and place a deposit 3 months in advance with the NPS. Our expedition name was "CSF'. Climbing Safely with Friends. Besides, CSF was easy to write on all the wands that we would use up on the mountain to mark routes and caches. Each climber must complete the registration process in person at the ranger station. They collect the balance of the permit fees and actually look at pictures on your ID to verify you are who you claim to be. You then are treated to a 2-hour slide presentation on climbing the mountain. Our particular ranger named Karen was not just an office person. She had spent substantial amounts of time on Denali and had summited several times. This was a much different experience than interfacing with the park service people we typically deal with in Lone Pine or Bishop, who for the most part are office staff or just casual hikers and are not climbers. Karen reviewed current route conditions, gave very specific instructions on human waste disposal and queried us on our gear. This seminar was informative and helpful.
We obtained permit #251 and started the walk to the airport. We finalized the finances with Geeting's air service and sorted gear to go up to the mountain. Shortly, all 4 of us and all our gear were flying with Doug Geeting himself. The flight is spectacular, including the glacier landing at the 7,200 ft. base camp. We checked in with the base camp manager, Lisa, just after noon and obtained our 6 gallons of white gas. This was way too much gas for the 4 of us. We ended up leaving a gallon at base camp and later tried to give away several liters up at 14 camp. We casually set up camp and started organizing gear.
We spent this day acclimatizing and doing some rope work with crevasse rescue practice on the big crevasses just north of the base camp. We also hooked up our sleds and practiced towing some gear. This is a must. It is surprising how unruly the sled can be with 50-70 lbs. of gear loaded, particularly going downhill or traversing.
The plan was to get up during the night and travel in colder temperatures to 7,600 ft. or more commonly called 8,000 or 8 camp. Climbing up a glacier with hidden crevasses is safer when it is colder and the snow is more solid. We awoke to a snowstorm and were a little concerned about traveling in a light snowstorm and whiteout so we slept in. Finally Maria and I were so antsy that we convinced everyone to get going. We started down the glacier on heartbreak hill. You must lose 500ft. of elevation in I mile from base camp before you get down on the Kahiltna Glacier to move up the mountain. Joe was the trailer on the rope and consequently had the hardest job with managing the sled since it was not connected to the climbing rope. The weather cleared in a couple of hours to spectacular views. We moved into 8 camp at about 3:15 pm, set up tents and started the everyday task of melting snow for hours to get enough water.
We were up at 4:30 am and soon moved up "Ski Hill". About halfway up I tossed the biodegradable poop bag into a huge crevasse. This made me feel a little uneasy about disposing of our waste in this way, but that was the instruction we were given. The day was spent moving to 10,000 ft. We had hoped to move clear to 11 camp, but it was too much and our heavy loads were taking a toll. We made camp at about 10,000 ft. just below Kahiltna pass amid snow flurries. Our team was doing well-just a few headaches, but hot chocolate and good food at dinner has a way of eliminating those. This had been a hard day and we were exhausted. Joe's hips were raw where the pack belt was rubbing due to heavy loads and constant tugging of the sled.
It started out cold but warmed up nicely. We moved quickly up to 11,000 ft. where there is a large camp with lots of climbers and tents. Eleven camp sits in a rather large bowl below "motorcycle hill" and then "squirrel hill". We pulled in after 2 hours and set up in a nicely established area that had just been vacated by another team. This would be a comfortable place. It had large walls of snow blocks enclosing our tents. Our plan was to stay at 11 camp for 2 days to acclimatize. I was feeling great and talked Matt into carrying some food up higher to cache. We started up the 2 previously mentioned hills. These are rather formidable climbs bringing you to about 12,300 ft in just a short distance. The day was gorgeous and the view spectacular. We buried some food as deep as we could to keep it away from the ravens, marked it well with wands, and headed back to 11 camp. Within just a few hours, a storm came in and dumped a bunch of snow on us. Below 14,000 ft., it was typical on the mountain to experience sudden white outs and snowstorms.
Today we loaded 15 days worth of food per person and several containers of fuel in our packs and moved up the mountain to cache the load. I had to break trail in the new snow but all went well. We made motorcycle hill, then squirrel hill and started a traverse to "windy corner". The slopes above us on the traverse were potential avalanche areas, and we cautiously went by. Most of the chutes were rather shallow and small not permitting much mass accumulation. However, in order to avoid a large crevasse field we needed to stay fairly close to the base of the ridge putting us precariously close to the run-out zone.
At windy corner, the wind was indeed blowing. We rounded the corner to find many crevasses with some bridges. We moved up to about 13,300ft. where we dug a deep cache and marked it well. It started to snow rather hard and we hustled to get back to camp again somewhat concerned about avalanches along the traverse. By the time we reached the top of squirrel hill, it was a total white out and snowing. I was quite surprised to find a lot of climbers moving up the mountain in these conditions. With the new snow, the chutes near windy corner had to be dangerous, but maybe they all knew something we didn't or they were just stupid. We made it down the hillside and back to camp. It snowed for about 8 hours with 4 to 6 inches accumulating. Four NPS rangers had moved into camp next to us sharing one of our snow walls. We struck up a friendship with one of them named Kevin that would last for the next week and a half.
Later that evening after dinner, we found out from Kevin that two teams had been caught in an avalanche near windy corner. There were no fatalities, as they were able to dig themselves out. As we had expected, the slopes did slide, but not with enough mass to bury the groups or sweep them into the crevasse field.
Our original plan was to move our camp today to 14,000 ft., but after the previous days snowfall we were leery about moving past the traverse with the new snow. We slept in. We shouldn't have. Lots of people were moving up and down the mountain. The day started out to be rather nice, then turned cold. We decided to go ahead and pack up and move. We started at 2 pm. hauling our sleds and all our gear up the hills. We moved past our cache at l3,300ft. and headed into 14 camp located at l4,200ft. It was very cold and blustery. We set up quickly, heated some water, had dinner and went to bed. This was another hard day but we were now at 14 camp and for the most part on schedule.
Our plan today was to go back to 13,300ft. and pick up our cache, which we did. Matt's thermometer read 16 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. It was cold. After picking up the cache, we now had all our gear and food situated at 14 camp.
We loaded packs with food and fuel intending to carry a load to the top of the headwall at 16,200ft. The winds were very bad, but we made the climb and buried the cache. The top of the head wall consists of 800 feet of fixed lines. These were straightforward but quite icy and in some places as steep as 55 degrees-a pretty good grunt with a full pack at 16,000 ft. Upon returning to camp, the weather forecast posted at the NPS tents called for a big storm coming in. Everyone set to work fortifying walls and tents.
Days l0 to 14.
The storm stayed out in the Bering Sea. We could see the thunderheads out there. There was a little snowfall almost everyday with strong winds up high on the mountain much of the time. Many climbers returned from 17 camp without summiting and many of them looked pretty battered up from the sustained cold and winds. This threatening storm would stymie us for the next 4 days. We had hoped to move up to 17,200ft. or 17 camp, but the bad forecasts and constant threat of the storm kept us locked in at 14 camp. We had now spent a WEEK at 14 camp and were down to one more day of food and fuel. This was a drag, but turned out to be a blessing in that all of us were extremely well acclimatized. Nearly every day some of our team climbed up to 16,000 ft. and one day close to 17,000 ft. Each of us paid attention to what his or her own body could handle. These climb high-sleep low scenarios made our team very strong.
Finally we moved our camp. We packed everything and started up the headwall. We passed our cache at 16,200 ft picking up 3 or 4 days of food and continued to 17 camp. This was a very hard move bringing all the gear, food, and fuel up the headwall and the ridge crest on up to 17,200ft. We camped in a broken down walled area that we would need to improve the next day.
We thought about trying the summit today, but it was a little windy in the morning. Besides, we were gassed from the previous day. We resolved that tomorrow would be our day. All night long the wind blew pretty steady with occasional gusts. I didn't sleep much thinking that we had missed our chance by not attempting the summit during the previous day. The winds kept up till about 5 am. then started to settle down.
This was Father's Day. We prepared for our summit attempt and left at 9 am, a typical time for groups to pull out of 17 camp. Earlier, it is just too windy and cold. On the traverse to Denali pass I placed several pickets for protection of our team. The winds plagued us for the next 2 hours up to the pass, then for another hour on our way toward Arch Deacons Tower. Suddenly they stopped. By the time we were on the football field just below 20,000 ft., there was hardly a breeze. We dumped our packs at the football field and made the final push to the summit ridge carrying water and food stuffed inside our jackets. We left the rope with the packs. This was a mistake, since the summit ridge was a knife-edge snow cornice with substantial exposure. We carefully maneuvered through the quarter mile ridge and made the summit on a picture perfect day at about 5 pm. There was barely a gentle wind. We had been lucky enough to summit on probably the best day of the year. What a view and what a thrill. We were the highest people in North America for that moment. Denali had allowed us to reach its summit.
It took us about 2 and one half hours to make it back to 17 camp.
We packed up and moved clear down to 11 camp picking up remaining caches at 16,200ft. and 14 camp. Each of us now had a monster load. Going downhill with a sled was awkward to say the least particularly for Joe, the back climber on the rope team.
We made it all the way to base camp and were ready for a pick up by the airplane. It took several flights before we all made it back to Talkeetna due to the number of tourists flying on the planes that day. Pilots would sometimes only pick up one climber at a time. This was frustrating to say the least being within minutes of pizza and soda and yet unable to get in a plane. I waited for nearly 6 hours before I got picked up. Our gear didn't make it back till the following day.
We had a wonderful shower and a large hamburger with fries that evening. Our lips were so chapped and blistered we could hardly open wide enough to get the hamburger in. The catsup and salty fries burned, but it was great. We were satisfied.
Today we picked up a shuttle to Anchorage, boarded a standby flight to LA and arrived home happy and jubilant. Thanks to a great team. Each of us had done a spectacular job of managing the rope, climbing hardware, and gear necessary to make the summit. Each of us had also met our own individual physical challenges. None of us could have done it alone. Denali is a goal accomplished and a wonderful memory.